#BlueBirdLives: A case against ‘The Decay of Twitter’

The depth of the microblogging social network’s stasis may be exaggerated. Here’s why.

There’s a kind of deathwatch for Twitter going on. With successive lackluster quarters in user growth, some are suggesting the social networking site is truly in decline. In an exhaustive Nov. 2 essay, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic posits just that in “The Decay of Twitter.”

Carving out a specious distinction between “Twitter the Network” and “Twitter the Company,” Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, asserts that the relative stasis of the microblogging social network, vis-à-vis its stock price and other metrics sacred to Wall Street, has a parallel with Twitter’s diminishing performance as a growing concern in the online space.

The marketplace of ideas and the marketplace of money, he seems to say, are of one mind: Twitter may be on its last legs of influence. This active Twitter user begs to differ.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO (Boston Herald)

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Twitter now claims more than 320 million MAU (monthly active users) worldwide, a seemingly impressive number of adherents. But user growth has stalled, especially in the United States, even as revenue keeps climbing. Some of Meyer’s early argument is economic in its scope; it documents the company’s “dreary set of quarterly earnings” (Twitter has a loss of $132 million after taxes, despite beating investor expectations, he reports).

It’s true, Twitter faces big challenges going forward, and the blue bird brain trust is in hunker-down mode at headquarters in San Francisco. Jack Dorsey, a founder of the company (and of the Square mobile-payments company), has come back to take over as CEO. In his first full quarter as CEO, Twitter gained 8 percent growth, about 4 million new users. In his new position, he’s been trying different new projects that amount to a full-court press.

The company just launched Moments, a kind of an event-driven tweet-curation service; and a new in-tweet polling feature. “For poll creators, it’s a new way to engage with Twitter’s massive audience and understand exactly what people think,” Twitter project manager Todd Sherman wrote in an Oct. 21 company blog post.

There are plans to take down the 140-character limit on Direct Messages, and to roll out an “integrated marketing campaign” in the United States. The initiative launched with a TV ad on Game 1 of the World Series — an ad that, according to The Verge, was created by TBWA\Chiat\Day, the agency that built Apple’s legendary “1984” ad, the one that basically announced the Macintosh to the world.

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But these plans weren’t enough to stop Meyer from adopting an almost ageist viewpoint in his essay. Describing an experiment with a colleague comparing one period of Twitter’s life to another, Meyer says that “we noticed that the social network was slipping into something like midlife. It sometimes feels like Instagram, for instance, is the only social network that people actually still love to use.”

Well, that may be true for him. According to Internet Live Stats, and quoting from a Twitter VP for platform engineering, Twitter went from 5,000 tweets per day in 2007 to 500 million tweets per day in 2013 — an increase of six orders of magnitude.

For those tens or hundreds of millions of people actively tweeting every week or month, it seems there’s nothing wrong with “something like midlife.”

Walter Jackson Ong (Saint Louis University)

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In his piece, Meyer drills down into the core of his argument scaffolded by and borrowing from digital scholar Bonnie Stewart and Walter Ong — the late Jesuit priest, English professor, historian of religion and president of the Modern Language Association.

Meyer writes: “Ong’s great scholarly focus was the transition of human society from orality to literacy: from sharing stories and ideas through spoken language alone, to sharing them through writing, text, and printed media. [O]rality treats words as sound and action, only; … emphasizes memory and redundancy … stays close to the ‘human lifeworld.’ In literate cultures, on the other hand, words are something you look up; language can stray more abstractly from objects; and speech … can become more analytic.

“When you speak face-to-face, you’re always judging what you’re saying by the reaction of the person you’re speaking to. But when you write (or make a video or a podcast) online, what you’re saying can go anywhere, get read by anyone, and suddenly your words are finding audiences you never imagined you were speaking to.”

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For Meyer, literate communication in the age of Twitter thus represents “a collapse of speech-based expectations and print-based interpretations. It’s a consequence of the oral-literate hybrid that flourishes online. It’s conversation smoosh.”

Meyer seems to lament the conflation of the oral and literal forms of exposition that Twitter represents. But as far as this union — a proof of what Ong called “secondary orality” — is real in the first place, it has antecedent expressions beyond Twitter. The oral-literate hybrid doesn’t just flourish online, and it didn’t begin online.

For years, for example, steadily improving voice-dictation computer programs and speech-to-text software apps like Dragon Dictation (or its predecessor) let people utter words as spoken text and have them translated into written text, for distribution as notes, in documents and online. That’s as fast a hookup of oral and literate communication as you could possibly ask for.

For that matter, what does Meyer think he’s seeing when he looks at movies with subtitles? Or what does he think he’s experiencing when he goes to an opera with supertitles? The oral and the literate, fused instantly.

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Meyer overlooks the reasons why oral culture gave way to literate culture in the first place. Over generations (and starting looong before Twitter), there’s been more and more noise to contend with, more impediments to rote memorization, more data to complicate the oral mode of storytelling.

For generations people have been moving faster, processing more information in increasingly less time, facing the fact of having more and more to remember. You can only recall so much from memory. Something had to give. Gutenberg knew that. He got the ball rolling, and we’ve been perfecting the literate form of communication — of writing it down — ever since.

Meyer goes on: “Do other things get smooshed on Twitter? Definitely. The public and the private smoosh, as do the personal and professional. I’d even argue that subjectivity and objectivity get smooshed — consider the Especially Serious Journalists who note that ‘RTs are not endorsements.’ But understanding Twitter as an online space that, for a long time, drew its energy from the tension between orality and literacy, and that — in its mid-life — has moved more decisively toward one over the other, works for me as a model of its collapse.”

But the “smooshing” that Meyer finds a problem is, as a phenomenon, nothing more particular to Twitter than it is to Reddit, another nonstop firehose social network (but one whose content has its context ordered by distinct, subject-related verticals). Or any other social network. Or, in many respects, the Internet itself.

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The conversation smoosh in our culture has been going on since the first serial dramas on radio, with actors reading out loud (the oral) from scripts prepared in advance (the literate). It’s been happening since modern news organizations made it common practice to transcribe the oral statements and public addresses of various presidents of the United States. It’s been happening since emails gave way to direct messages, since ad hoc computer instruction gave way to Lynda.com, since oral explanations of complex statistics gave way to infographics.

“I’m not sure anything can fix it, honestly,” Meyer says of the smoosh. “But I wonder if Twitter can’t arrange a de-smooshing, at least a little bit, by creating more forms of private-ness on the site. Separating the private and the public could, in turn, delineate ‘speech-like’ and ‘print-like’ tweets.”

By definition (and Twitter’s default posture), a tweet is a form of public communication, but Twitter offers a form of “private-ness.” Users can post tweets privately. That’s option 1. Option 2 couldn’t be simpler. If you want to keep something absolutely private, don’t tweet it at all. The private and the public are already well siloed on Twitter.

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And then there’s Meyer’s other idea: “Making it so an individual tweet’s publicness can be toggled on or off might help users feel more comfortable spending time there.”

Well, how’s that going to work? If you’re shuttling between public and private status for tweets, what was the point of making them private in the first place? Such “toggling” might have limited value; if you’re in PR or marketing, being able to time or tweak the circumstances of a big reveal via tweets might be important, but for the rest of us? Not so much.

I’m not sure that Twitter has lost that “tension between orality and literacy”; the situation Meyer laments may not be fixable as much as it is something that doesn’t need fixing. It’s not really Twitter’s place to alter that tension or define its boundaries. That tension’s organic to the Twitter user experience; those using Twitter on a regular or even irregular basis have accepted that as foundational.

A chart reflecting percentage changes in retweets based on use of visual information. Use of photos lead to a 35 percent increase in retweets (Search Engine Watch)

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For Meyer, the thrill is gone, but for the wrong reasons. “This tension also explains, to me, why the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi, but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh. Visual conversations have stayed chatty, in other words.”

But Meyer apparently forgot about some of what’s helped Twitter be a “visual social network.” Like when Twitter first allowed photographs within tweets in June 2011. Or when Twitter allowed multiple images within tweets, in March 2014. It’s a common refrain in the twitterverse: Adding pictures gets you retweets. Twitter (through Search Engine Watch) said so in March 2014. We love tweets with pictures — as of last year, even more than tweets with videos.

Retweets and images chart (Buffer)

That everyday fact of Twitterlore has led to something that’s perfectly logical: Now, compared to June 2011, when the practice began, tweets with photographs have proven their value as a means of building a following (and, by extension, for Twitter, a community). Twitter is a visual social network; granted, much of its visuality is occasional, afterthought, secondary (something to be expected when that visual component is an addition to the original business model).

But the visual component is there, in millions and millions of tweets every day. It’s curious that Meyer doesn’t even mention pictures in tweets at all.

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Twitter’s predicament — if 8 percent user base growth can really be called a predicament — may just mean that for now, people have moved on, maybe to return at a later time. They’re still coming to Twitter, of course, just not in the jaw-dropping numbers of the past. And that makes cruel but inescapable sense.

It’s not reasonable to expect Twitter’s once-astronomical rate of growth to continue almost a decade after launch. That’s true for Twitter or any other social networking site.

Consider: Between March 21, 2006 (when Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet) and today, we’ve seen the introduction and maturation of Tumblr (launched in February 2007), WhatsApp (late 2009), Pinterest (March 2010), Instagram (October 2010), Google+ (June 2011) and Snapchat (September 2011). That’s not even counting Facebook (launched in early 2004) or Reddit (launched a year later). Or the social-networking competitors from outside the United States.

Obviously, there’s more competition in the space today than there was almost a decade ago, or even three or four years ago. So it’s hardly realistic to expect the same robust-on-steroids rate of growth in today’s field of competitors — a lot more crowded than the one Twitter navigated years ago, when there was a lot less competition.

That kind of growth, or anything close to it, isn’t sustainable, and it’s not sustainable for reasons that have less to do with the company and everything to do with the competition. The market share pie is only so big, and consumers can only eat so much so fast.

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Meyer’s piece has an implicit focus on how this all plays out in the United States, because of Twitter’s status as an American corporation and Wall Street’s status as, well, Wall Street. But you can’t just gauge Twitter’s success or alleged failure by concentrating on users in the United States. If your company is a global presence, anything less than a global overview of the company’s prospects is incomplete — a look at the trees without a study of the expanding forest.

Twitter may be looking for growth in all the wrong places. Of Twitter’s estimated 320 million MAU, about 77 percent are outside the U.S. There are about 66 million Twitter MAU in the United States — about half what’s in the United Kingdom (about 131 million).

The United States is the textbook definition of a mature social-networking market; so, to a lesser extent, is much of Europe. Twitter’s future, like that of other social-networking platforms, is to be found in other relatively undeveloped markets such as Africa, Asia, India and Latin America … and the still-undertapped market of China, the world’s wild-electron economy.

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Meyer’s proposed changes to the Twitter business model misread Twitter’s place in the wider scheme of things. In the experiential taxonomy of social networking, Facebook is the paragraph, Twitter is the sentence; Facebook is the longer-winded explanation, Twitter is the quick shout across the yard.

Once you understand that — once you grasp the fact that, since all social networks don’t have the same function, all social networks won’t serve the same purpose or be used by the same audience — the unity of oral and literate communication cultures that vexes Meyer needn’t be a problem at all, or even a concern (unless you’re on Wall Street).

It is what it is. But what that unity is is what our communications process has been moving toward for a long time. It indicates how Twitter is, among other things, a distillation of a union of communication cultures that was happening well before Twitter was invented.

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There’s been much gnashing of teeth about Twitter’s failure to grow its numbers, but — if this be heresy, make the most of it — it may just be that Twitter’s user base growth rate is as big as it’s going to get (for now, of course).

Companies reach a peak and drop back from that height, often to resurge down the road. When market share advances and recedes, right along with the user base, that doesn’t necessarily mean the company is broken or damaged, or its leadership is out to lunch. It may well mean that consumers in a crowded space have reached a saturation point; people have moved on, maybe to return at a later time.

It also means that Wall Street may need to adjust its expectations to reflect an understanding of that organic process, one that occurs not in the boardroom or on the trading floor, but in the marketplace. Note to Wall Street: Expectations notwithstanding, the arrow doesn’t always go up.

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What Meyer observes is true, but in ways bigger than he can see. “[T]he public and the private smoosh, as do the personal and professional” on Twitter, just like they do everywhere online all the time. In some perverse way, that’s the whole point. This isn’t specific to Twitter, or any of the others.

And just as the public and the private smoosh, and the personal and the professional, Twitter the Company and Twitter the Network smoosh too. Their fortunes are ultimately inseparable, for better or worse. Growth is the bottom line, and the trend line, that both live by. But how that incremental, organic growth happens, how that adoption by the public occurs can’t be rushed, by Wall Street or Jack Dorsey or anybody else.

“It needs to grow,” one social networking expert said about Twitter. “It’s needed to grow a lot. I think they tried a lot of things in the past few years that weren’t necessarily the right things. I think its real potential still hasn’t been revealed yet. It needs someone who’s not just mesmerized by its sparkliness, but can see it as a product. Who can look at how people are actually using it and how people want to use it.

“Whoever’s there now needs to reinvestigate the product: how it’s being used, and what its core functionality is. Because there are still people out there who don’t get it. How can something be so popular and widely discussed and visible, and yet people aren’t understanding it? It’s not overly complicated. It’s not. It’s super-simple. That’s the thing that someone needs to address.”

That’s what Noah Glass, a co-founder of Twitter, said years after his departure from the company, in an interview with Business Insider.

In April of 2011.